Theology must drive polity, MGB commissioners told
Panel devising ways to receive feedback from every Presbyterian
Institutional questions around polity and governance are secondary to questions around identity and mission, two middle governing body executives who are polity experts told the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Middle Governing Body Commission at its second meeting here Feb. 3-5. “We have a tendency in the church to ask the question ‘How do we organize ourselves?’ first,” said the Rev. Paul Hooker, executive presbyter for St. Augustine Presbytery and a member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC). “And it should be last. The first question is ‘What are we called to do? he continued, “which masks an even prior question: “Who are we called to be?” Quoting former General Assembly Stated Clerk the late James Andrews, the Rev. Daniel Saperstein, executive for Plains and Peaks Presbytery and also an ACC member, said: “Polity is the practical expression of our theology.” The commission, appointed by last summer’s 219th General Assembly, is charged with consulting with the whole PC(USA) on the mission and function of middle governing bodies in the denomination; to develop models that reflect the roles of middle governing bodies in Presbyterian polity and the changing context of the church’s witness in the world; to report its findings and recommend changes it believes are necessary; and to supervise the oversight of the middle governing bodies in the Synod of Puerto Rico. The commission is still in data-gathering mode and spent a great deal of this meeting planning its “consultation” with the whole church. Working with the denomination’s Research Services office, commission members have developed three survey instruments — one for sessions, one for synods and presbyteries and one that will be available to every Presbyterian via the commission’s Web site. “We want to talk and listen to everyone,” said commission moderator the Rev. Tod Bolsinger, pastor of San Clemente (CA) Presbyterian Church in Los Ranchos Presbytery. Before and after their next meeting in Seattle in late-May, commission members will hold listening sessions in every synod and in a number of presbyteries. The commission will also conduct focus groups with a wide range of Presbyterians at various gatherings and will encourage discussion and feedback on Facebook and Twitter. “The guiding questions,” Bolsinger said, are ‘How are governing bodies best organized to be responsive both the Spirit of Jesus Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship?’ and ‘Are the structures of history the best platforms for carrying out our mission into the future?’” Saperstein and Hooker led the commission into a thorough exploration of that history. Going back to Presbyterians’ roots, Saperstein outlined Calvin’s theological underpinnings for church governance:
- The sovereignty of God;
- The centrality of the Word of God;
- Human beings created in the image of God as free beings with dignity and worthy of respect;
- Universal depravity: that human beings are sinful and self-interested and in need of accountability and discipline;
- The unity of the church: that there is one church, not many.
- The church as community of faith — entrusting itself to God;
- The church as community of hope — rejoicing in the prospect that God is making a new creation;
- The church as community of love — exhibiting forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration;
- The church as community of witness – pointing beyond itself to the transforming work of God.